811 Chicago Mapping Case Study

Chicago’s 50% Damage Reduction in 5 Years

811 Chicago has built a robust damage prevention program by leveraging a variety of best practices and its authority to oversee every aspect of utility construction. Chicago has experienced a 50% reduction in annual damages since 2017, a remarkable decrease considering that damages to underground infrastructure across the country have remained stagnant during the same time. 811 Chicago is a service of the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), and located with the Division of Infrastructure Management (DIM).

811 Chicago achieved this reduction through its robust damage prevention program, which provides a structure for new projects that includes project design review, right of way permitting, locating, and enforcement. This program ensures that projects are designed in a manner to avoid existing utilities, and empower excavators with the resources they need to identify buried infrastructure.  

The following case study explores 811 Chicago’s project design review process, which establishes a foundation for safe excavation related to utility projects. 811 Chicago’s damage prevention program has reduced damages by half over five years, and provides insight into effective practices as stakeholders to examine their own opportunities to accomplish the same goal by 2028.



Mapping’s Contribution to 811 Chicago’s Success

811 Chicago’s damage prevention program begins with a project design review for new utilities. The review emphasizes collaboration and communication among project owners, engineers, and facility operators. Project owners submit the location of the project and receive a utility atlas page from DIM’s Office of Underground Coordination (OUC). OUC returns atlas pages for most of the buried utilities in the vicinity of the project location. Facility operators sharing available mapping data of underground infrastructure with other stakeholders is key to the effectiveness of the review phase. With the maps, project owners can produce a final design that avoids existing facilities.

The project owner next resubmits the project to OUC, which then distributes the plan to all OUC members. OUC membership is comprised of utility owners who review the plan to ensure that the new utility will not encroach upon their facility. The project is only approved once all members agree on the plans. If a utility owner/operator requests changes to the plans, the project planners must make those changes before the project can be released to the permitting phase. Thus, projects approved by the OUC ensure a new facility’s potential impact on existing infrastructure is mitigated before the ground is broken.

The OUC returns value to both utility owners and excavators by saving them costs associated with utility damages. Facility owner/operators are willing to share mapping information in these circumstances because it helps protect their facilities and does not betray any sensitive information about their assets—only where a potential conflict may occur. By giving access to mapping information, utility owner/operators are helping to protect their vital assets from accidental damages, saving them time and money. The OUC process also highlights how collaboration and open dialogue between stakeholders allows 811 Chicago’s damage prevention model to be successful.

While OUC reviews are conducted in a database with access rights, 811 Chicago uses the “dotMaps” tool to publish data useful for all damage prevention stakeholders. dotMaps is a custom-built mapping program that displays the location of OUC projects, permits, and dig tickets. Stakeholders, including public users, can use dotMaps to research completed and upcoming infrastructure projects. Project owners and utility owners can use the data to coordinate work along the same stretch of right of way. Field crews can also access dotMaps to reference relevant information on-site including which utility owners have installed assets in the vicinity. Public users can use the data to understand utility projects in their neighborhoods. The coordination and transparency enabled by dotMaps further promotes damage prevention in Chicago.

Following design review, 811 Chicago will release a permit to begin construction only if the permittee can provide evidence of an approved design review. If so, the final drawing and notes from the utility owners and agency contact information are exposed to all entities listed on the permit, thus empowering an excavator with additional resources to identify buried infrastructure before they break ground as well as ensuring they receive the approved deign. 811 Chicago only releases a dig ticket if the requestor can provide a valid permit number. The same documents are exposed on the dig ticket. Of note, 811 Chicago only allows “licensed contractors”—or those with a valid liability insurance—to request permits and dig tickets. Finally, 811 Chicago has an investigation team that can respond to reports of excavators or utility owners violating the permit terms or One Call law. 811 Chicago also investigates all reported utility damages and issues sanctions accordingly.

Key Drivers of Success 

811 Chicago attributes its 50% damage reduction in 5 years to the following damage prevention strategies. 

  • Access to mapping visuals of underground infrastructure during project planning helps to simplify the design process, mitigating potential conflicts down the line. With greater access to facility maps, stakeholders gain valuable information that enables them to avoid damages while still in the planning stage of a project by designing around existing infrastructure when possible.
    Access to maps is also helpful during the excavation phase of a project. The maps and utility notes and contact information provide excavators a tertiary level of “knowing what’s below” before they break ground.
  • Participation from utility owner/operators at the design phase ensures projects will avoid exisiting utilities before a shovel goes into the ground.  In fact, 811 Chicago’s damage prevention program is only successful because its stakeholders participate in the process. The OUC provides utility owners a demonstratable return on investment: by sharing maps and committing resources to design review, utility owners gain cost savings related to infrastructure repairs.
    The OUC also provides utility owners equity in Chicago’s underground environment. Knowing that their voice has an impact at the project level, utility owner/operators are actively engaged in the process and are more likely to continue that communication through to their work with excavators, locators and other stakeholders.
  • Enforcement authority also played a major role in the City’s reduction in utility damages. After the City of Chicago was given enforcement authority over damage prevention violations in 2017, damage rates immediately decreased.

Entities found to have violated Chicago’s One Call Law are given sanctions including training and civil penalties. Money collected through civil penalties must be spent on damage prevention programming including outreach. Damage investigation also provide 811 Chicago’s with data on the root causes of utility strikes and how to control those causes, which CDOT can then operationalize as new policy.

Next Practices Perspective

811 Chicago’s damage prevention model is unique, and features aspects that other stakeholders may not be able to adopt within the current system in their state or region—namely enforcement authority and oversight of the OUC. But there are many aspects of 811 Chicago’s process that any stakeholder, regardless of local regulation, can incorporate into their damage prevention process.

  • Greater access to maps during the project planning stage. Sharing mapping information is often avoided by stakeholders due to misconceptions about how the maps are used. Many utility owner/operators are not comfortable sharing their maps over concerns about the dissemination of their proprietary information.
    As is being demonstrated with the Minnesota Utilities Mapping Project, the mapping information needed to prevent damages is limited and does not betray privileged information about assets. Users are also under terms and conditions that restrict them from storing or sharing the information, so there is little risk for facility owner/operators.
    811 Chicago’s utility owner/operator members provide access to their facility maps to excavators, locators and designers through the dotMaps portal during planning and excavation. Access to these maps has been key for Chicago stakeholders to plan projects with existing infrastructure in mind and excavate with a clear idea of what facilities are located in the area.
  • Transparency into design plans before excavation. Sharing project plans with relevant utility owner/operators is a mutually beneficial process to both the owner/operators and the excavator.  Utility owner/operators are given a voice to flag projects that may be a hindrance to their infrastructure, helping to protect it from damages, while excavators can avoid potential conflicts and the resulting fines.
    Project managers should consider opening a dialogue with relevant utility owners/operators during the planning and design phase of a new project to ensure that no significant conflicts exist that could delay the project or cause damages in the future. Many 811 centers offer a design ticket process that stakeholders can take advantage of during project planning, which can help maintain an open understanding of current excavation plans.
  • Greater collaboration between stakeholders. By beginning projects with a high level of transparency from all parties involved, 811 Chicago’s system helps build and maintain strong relationships between stakeholders. Giving stakeholders an opportunity to voice opinions or concerns about new projects also helps maintain their trust in the damage prevention system.
    In Chicago, damage prevention stakeholders are communicating with each other from the very beginning planning stages, which helps ensure that project outcomes are acceptable to everyone involved. This includes a willingness on the part of excavators and designers to alter plans in order to better suit existing infrastructure, as well as openness on the part of utility owner/operators to limited facility map access. 

For more information on 811 Chicago’s damage reduction efforts, visit www.ipi.cityofchicago.org/Digger.   Learn more about other strategies to reduce damages as well as other successful efforts from CGA members at www.commongroundalliance.com.

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